DPAA In The News

79 years after Pearl Harbor sinking, project to identify USS Oklahoma's dead nearing its end (via the Tulsa World)

By Tim Stanley

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The name “Pearl Harbor” didn’t mean anything to most Americans when it crackled over their radios for the first time in December 1941.

Before the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, few had ever heard of it.

But for Oklahomans at least, one name in the news reports that followed rang a definite bell.

Word that the battleship USS Oklahoma was among the vessels sunk was a blow that just added to their already profound shock.

And it would create for them a special emotional tie to Pearl Harbor that was destined to endure.

Just last year, the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame recognized that significance by making it the first ship inducted into the hall.

The USS Oklahoma started becoming more real for me personally about four years ago.

That’s when we first began to receive the occasional news releases announcing that a missing USS Oklahoma sailor — another of the almost 400 who went unaccounted for after the attack — had at last been identified and his remains were being returned to the family.

Since then, I’ve been on hand at Tulsa International Airport for some emotional scenes involving survivors.

This effort to provide closure, the USS Oklahoma Project, is part of an ongoing initiative to recover and identify the remains of America’s fallen by the national Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

With this Monday marking the 79th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, it seemed like a good time to check in on the project’s status.

Carrie LeGarde, anthropologist and USS Oklahoma Project lead, was happy to fill me in.

End in sight
But first, a little background.

Of the 2,403 American deaths at Pearl Harbor, 429 were from the Oklahoma. Of those, only 35 were recovered and identified, meaning 394 went unaccounted for.

In fact, most bodies that went down with the ship wouldn’t be recovered until 1943, when the vessel was finally raised from the sea bottom.

All unidentifiable remains would end up buried together in graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

That’s where most stayed — until 2015, when they were disinterred and subjected to DNA analysis.

In the five years since, USS Oklahoma Project efforts have resulted in 279 identifications.

And, LeGarde told me, they hope to make a serious dent soon in the final 115.

Thanks to a recent push, many new identifications are expected in the next few weeks, she said.

“We’re kind of nearing the end of the project in a sense,” said LeGarde, who’s based in Omaha, Nebraska.

While accounting for every sailor is unlikely, there’s no reason why every possibility can’t be exhausted.

And that’s something we can help with.

Of the 115 still unaccounted for, there are 25 sailors for whom no family has been found, and thus no family DNA samples obtained, LeGarde said.

“Family reference samples are really critical, because we need to be able to match the DNA (from the remains) to something,” she said.

“We're trying to identify everybody, even if we don't have a reference sample. But it's really difficult to try to do that without it.”

We’ve included the list of 25 with this column. It includes one Oklahoman, Sam Douglas Nevill, a Navy yeoman third class. His birthplace is listed as Elk City.

Who knows — with the growing army of online genealogists out there today and the tools available, a few of these names might yet find a family link.

‘Giving answers to the families’
LeGarde doesn’t usually deal directly with families.

But the one time she did, it made an impression, she said.

It happened last year after the identification of Rudolph and Leo Blitz — twin brothers from Lincoln, Nebraska, who enlisted when they were 17 and died on the USS Oklahoma.

Because the siblings were from nearby Lincoln, LeGarde took the opportunity to do the family briefing herself.

“There were like 20 family members there I think — four generations of people, including the twins’ younger sister,” said LeGarde, who also attended the funeral.

Seeing how much it meant to the family, most of whom never had the chance to know the brothers, “was touching and it makes you really stop and think about how important what you're doing is,” she said.

“Even for those who never knew them, (the story) has been such a huge part of their lives.”

Hearing LeGarde talk about the Blitz brothers’ return stirs memories for me. We’ve had the chance, too, to see firsthand the project’s impact on families.

In 2018, that included the survivors of Eugene Wicker, a 20-year-old Navy radio operator from Coweta, who died at Pearl.

It was Wicker’s nephew, Woody Eugene Wicker — who was named after his uncle — who provided the DNA that made identification possible.

Woody, a Broken Arrow resident, told us how much it meant to him personally, to be the one who finally helped bring his uncle home.

LeGarde hopes there will be many more stories like that one in early 2021. Their recent push has them poised to make significant progress.

“I'm really hopeful for the number of IDs that we'll get. I think it's very promising,” she said.

For LeGarde, the prospect of closing out the 5-year project is an emotional one.

“I’m just really honored to be a part of the process,” she said. “I find it really rewarding and I love to be able to be a part of giving answers to the families.”

USS Oklahoma families sought

DPAA officials say they still lack family contacts who could provide DNA for identification purposes for 25 unaccounted-for USS Oklahoma sailors. Those names follow below.

If one of these is a relative, contact the Navy Casualty Office at (800) 443-9298. They'll set the family up with a DNA kit to get a reference sample.

Stanley Willis Allen, Bethel, Maine

Randall Walter Brewer, Richmond, Virginia

James Rufus Buchanan, Flint, Michigan

Biacio Casola, New York, New York

William McKnight Curry, York, Alabama

Kenneth Edward Doernenburg, Dorchester, Wisconsin

Robert Emile Halterman, Ottawa, Illinois

Jimmie Lee Henrichsen, Sioux City, Iowa

Harvey Christopher Herber, Tacoma, Washington

Frank Samuel Hoag Jr., Aberdeen, Washington

Willie Jackson, Bayou Laforche, Louisiana

Jerry Jones, Springs, Mississippi

Harold William Lindsey, Waxahachie, Texas

Sam Douglas Nevill, Elk City, Oklahoma

Leo Basil Regan, Fair Haven, Vermont

David Joseph Riley, Green Bay, Wisconsin

Rowland Hampton Smith, San Diego, California

Rangner Faber Tanner Jr., Sherman, California

Benjiman C. Terhune, Salisbury Township, Missouri

Clarence Thompson, New Orleans, Louisiana

Harry Earnest Walker, Gratio, Tennessee

Charles Edward Walters, Middleport, Ohio

Albert Luther Williams, Champaign, Illinois

Wilbur Slade Williams, James City, North Carolina

Thomas Zvansky, Rittman, Ohio

Annual Pearl Harbor Day ceremony

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year for the first time the annual National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day Commemoration on Oahu will be livestreamed for the public.

The ceremony is set for noon (CST) Monday and may be viewed at pearlharborevents.wordpress.com/broadcast